Are the cities of the future to be a series of opal blue utopias, or streets of bent necked citizens crouching over screens?
At ‘Imagine the Urban Future’, the Green Digital Charter (GDC) and Knowledge Society Forum (KSF) joint conference held on 23 January, cities and experts gathered to discuss how they could build smarter cities that work for all their residents. How can leaders best mediate the dual tasks of moving their cities forward while ensuring that they are travelling in the right direction?
Putting the you in utopia
In her welcome speech, Eindhoven’s vice-mayor for innovation and KSF chair, Mary-Ann Schreurs stressed that tech innovation should never be for its own sake, but rather be centred around the citizen, “Let’s put the good life first, let’s put society first, let’s put technology in service of that.”
Anna-Lisa Boni, secretary general of EUROCITIES, suggested that we need open dialogue about the kinds of algorithms our technology will employ, so that citizens can have access to these otherwise opaque systems.
When used right, technology can be a major aid to democratic governance. Daniela Patti, managing director at Eutropian, pointed to the capacity of e-governance systems to increase the diversity of the people that governments connect to. As in Madrid’s Participa LAB, techniques like participatory budgeting and crowdsourcing regulation can put citizens in the driver seat of their cities. Indeed, as Peter Baeck, head of collaborative economy research at Nesta, pointed out, crowdfunding now accounts for 60% of the funding for start ups in the UK. If similar mechanisms can be set up at government level, high uptake can be expected.
Nevertheless, Mr Baeck also warned that cities risk not preparing their residents sufficiently for the technological tidal wave that may be swelling before us. How can cities help the potentially huge numbers of people whose jobs are soon to be automated? Local governments must provide training for people that enables them to switch professions.
Claire Courteille, director of the International Labour Organisation, confirmed that the upskilling battle must be fought on two fronts. On one hand, people need to be retrained into careers that require soft skills, creativity, teamwork and collaboration. On the other hand, 40% of the EU workforce has little or no digital literacy – a stark figure. It is essential the training is provided for people so that they can engage in the digital world.
Ms Courteille declared that, “we must reject the idea of techno-predestination. We have to take control, upskill and prepare for rapid change. Life long learning will have to become a reality.”
Giving the example of the guifi.net mesh network, Mr Baeck concluded that people and groups have the potential to act in extremely innovative ways, but they must first be empowered to do so.
The future is in our cities
“Cities,” claimed Ms Schreurs, “are the foremost at creating solutions.” It is cities who are focussing on the interoperability of tech on a European level, and working together to create generic technology that delivers local solutions.
However, Ms Schreurs also warned that cities must take control, “You need a concept of what you want your city to be. If you don’t structure the cooperation and organise the governance, it won’t fly.” Markus Bylund, director of IT and digitalisation strategy for Uppsala, emphasised that “If we continue as we are today, we will fail. In the key to the digital future, technology is just 10%, the rest is changing the way we do things.”
Taking on the titans
While cities like Amsterdam are bringing giant companies like Airbnb to the negotiating table and bargaining for better solutions, many cities still don’t feel empowered to shape globalisation to their own terms.
“This,” Ms Boni confirmed, “is the time for cities. It is important for cities to join forces by being part of a group that can really change things in policy making, through more funding and attention to cities, but one that also allows cities to work together to pool their insights and to innovate. The best way to predict the future is to create it”
The series, ‘Imagine the Urban Future’, will continue throughout 2018, with events being organised in each EUROCITIES forum. Through this series of events, and high-impact campaigns such as Cities4Europe, EUROCITIES is taking its own advice by actively shaping the debate around the future that cities want to see within Europe and beyond.
This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement N°691895
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